NOSH & FOOD:Bratwurst, brew and buffalo stew

At Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco, the line is already out the door and down Van Ness, but nobody’s in a hurry. Queuing up for a meal is just part of the Tommy’s experience.

But who knew it was, in part, a Jewish experience?

On the menu today, outta-this-world buffalo stew along with corned beef, bratwurst, and half a dozen other braised or roasted meats. Vegetarians are advised to keep their distance, but for the average Bay Area carnivore, a visit to Tommy’s Joynt is like stepping into culinary heaven.

The decor is as distinct as the food. Tommy’s walls are lined with a crazy collage of beer steins, musical instruments, stuffed game birds, found art and sundry chachkas — some dating back to opening day in 1947.

Naturally, once upon a time there was a real Tommy.

Tommy Harris was his name. Harris was Jewish, and from opening day onward the restaurant has been in Jewish hands. He died in 1990.

These days, Harris’ younger cousin Susie Katzman manages the Joynt. Katzman is married to a former Conservative cantor, now co-manager of the restaurant and an emerging artist.

Six days a week, Katzman is there, juggling the roles of hostess, bean counter and bottle washer. The chief cook has been at the restaurant 30 years, and several other employees, from bartenders to kitchen staff, also count their tenure in decades.

Katzman has been on the job about five years. Lured back to San Francisco from Calgary, Alberta, where her husband, Mark Katzman, served as a cantor, she’s happy to keep Tommy’s Joynt all in the family. Even though the restaurant does not serve kosher food, she tries to maintain its haimish quality.

“When I was little,” recalls Katzman, who was born in San Francisco, “we’d come to the restaurant. I loved the mostaccioli and sourdough rolls.”

The rolls are still on the menu today. And Katzman orders her buffalo meat (200 pounds a week) from the same Montana supplier Tommy did years ago. In fact, much of the menu has remained unchanged, though Katzman takes credit for adding items like carrot cake and grilled salmon.

Innovations don’t come fast and furiously at Tommy’s Joynt. The building at the corner of Van Ness and Geary dates back to 1885, and it somehow survived the 1906 quake unscathed. Before Harris acquired the place, it had been a Greek restaurant. During the heyday of the hippies, Tommy painted the psychedelic swirls on the exterior. More recently, the city ordered the top two floors removed (something to do with leaning like the tower at Pisa). Now it’s the one-story landmark San Franciscans know and love.

Katzman is understandably proud of the fare at Tommy’s Joynt. “We make everything here except the bread and the desserts,” she says. “We have 110 different beers and we make a great Irish coffee.”

She is equally proud of the Jewish ethics that underlie some of her business decisions. For example, unlike most Bay Area eateries, Tommy’s is a union shop, which increases the overhead.

But Katzman doesn’t take it out on the customers. Prices at Tommy’s Joynt couldn’t be more reasonable, which partly explains why customers keep coming back year after year. And from day one, the restaurant has remained profitable.

“After 57 years, this place runs itself,” says an overly modest Katzman. “But I’m a big shmoozer. I love talking to the customers. There’s a family feeling here. Tommy’s Joynt really is an important part of San Francisco.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.